The elevator slid open and a man in handcuffs and blue jail coveralls stepped forward. Behind him came a uniformed officer, who pointed to the bench next to me. "Back in a minute," said the cop, and parked his charge in an alcove deep inside Parker Center, LAPD's Downtown headquarters.
I noticed that the inmate was cuffed in front and that his hands and nails were clean. Then I looked away. "Whatcha here for?" he said, and I turned to peer at him again, a slender man, probably in his twenties, clean-shaven, with short reddish blonde hair. I inspected the floor tiles and stifled my urge to reply.
"I'm down for receiving stolen property," volunteered this prisoner. "Bought some copper wire off a guy, turned out he stole it," he added. "What about you?"
I had lunched with a private investigator, who shared an anecdote about recovering funds ripped off in an insurance scam. He bragged that he had cracked this case after a police captain sold him confidential documents.
I hardly knew this PI, and I had grown up watching "Dragnet" and "Adam 12," believing that the police are my friends, that in Los Angeles, as perhaps nowhere else, the men in blue are above graft and larceny, that they are the finest citizens among us. And so later, chatting with someone whom I had known since high school, a man who had made a fine career in the LAPD, I had asked if such a thing was possible.
A week later a pair of detectives knocked at my door. They were from LAPD. From Internal Affairs. They wanted the name of the captain who had been bribed.
I didn't have a name. I didn't know which department the captain worked for, or even if he was LAPD or another force. And I didn't even know with certainty that there actually had been a bribe. But when I said as much, and explained that I had been talking to a PI about a book that I might write, these police who police the police began to float scenarios: Maybe I was the guy doing the bribing. Maybe I hired the guy who bought the documents. Maybe I had tried to bribe a police officer, but he refused.
Biting back my anger, I told them, again, what I knew, and what I didn't. They were not satisfied. I was invited to take a polygraph.
I had heard and read about polygraph tests, and knew just enough to be wary. The instrument measures blood pressure, respiration, and galvanic skin resistance — sweatiness. Those who favor it insist that these phenomena reflect the liar's inner anxiety, and that measuring them while responding to questions reveals deception, when present.
Those who don't believe in the machine say that while it may be that bodies scream "no, no, no," when their owners say "yes, yes, yes," interpreting the data is more art than science, that the real purpose of the "lie detector" is to frighten a suspect into confessing, and that as science its product is worthless.
I respectfully declined the LAPD's offer to prove my sincerity.
A week later, one of the detectives telephoned to offer me a chance to change my mind about the polygraph — and about what I had recounted about the cop captain on the take.
I declined again.
Later I started to think: I had done nothing wrong, committed no crime. I knew nothing that I hadn't shared with police. But how often does a writer get to experience a polygraph test? I dreamed of writing novels. Perhaps someday I might find such an encounter useful. Even if I never wrote about it, it would undoubtedly be an interesting experience.
When the detective called back yet again, I agreed to the test.
And so I was at Parker Center, listening to an inmate talk about buying stolen telephone cable. And going into shock: Many years earlier, my father, a junkyard owner, had been arrested for the identical crime. I was in Vietnam then, and never knew much about that incident. Dad had hired a lawyer. The matter evaporated.
Suddenly I was afraid.
My only previous brush with the law was a misdemeanor: Selling encyclopedias door-to-door without a license in a small town that wouldn’t issue said permits. But surely my father's felony arrest remained in some cop shop file. Could it really be coincidence that the first person I met at Parker Center was up on exactly the same rap, the only charge that my father had ever faced? I turned it over in my mind, realizing at last that what he was telling me, chapter and verse, was probably right out of Dad's case file.
I was getting the full treatment.
My mouth stayed shut until the Internal Affairs detective beckoned to me.
While I will never qualify for sainthood, I have never been much good at lying. No matter the temptation, I am quite unable to tell a woman that I love her if I don't. I am equally unable to withhold professions of sincere sentiment, even when I know that the object of my affections would rather not hear them. In ordinary conversation I tend to say whatever comes to mouth, without considering it for the merest instant, and so later I am often unable to recall my exactly words. Until well into middle age, when I learned that it was often better to be quiet than right, I found tact a challenge.
I feared no lie detector.
The room was small and worn, with faded lime-hued walls, the requisite one-way mirror, and a rumpled, balding operator who explained how things worked as he affixed a blood-pressure cuff at my biceps, a galvanometer sensor on my finger, a strap across my chest to measure how quickly and often my lungs filled. The detective read me the questions that he would ask and we began.
After preliminary queries — my name and age, used to establish a baseline of body responses, came the main event. And an unscripted question: "Your only reason for being here today is to help this investigation, is that correct?"
Not quite. I was there partly so that the police would stop bothering me, and partly for the possible literary value of the experience.
"Not exactly," I replied.
"Yes or no," said the detective. "Answer yes or no, please."
"Yes or no!"
Yes," I said. My body temperature rose. Perspiration oozed from my every pore. My heart beat wildly, and my blood pressure rose so rapidly that I grew dizzy. I fought for air.
The polygraph needles etched arabesques across the chart.
I have slogged through rice paddies with bullets snapping and hissing past my ears. I have spiraled down toward a landing zone while fountains of green tracers searched for our chopper as it jinked and side-slipped and zigzagged and shuddered from hit after hit. I have taken the witness stand in open court and had my motives and mores and credibility gnawed by a pit bull in a thousand-dollar suit. I have been about as afraid as it is possible to be, yet kept my wits and did my job. But in that small green room I was suddenly overcome with dread. Panic seized my body and refused to release it until the questions ended and the polygraph was turned off.
"Anything you want to say?" asked the sneering detective afterward. "Are you ready to give us the truth now?"
I tried not to be sore. The police were just doing their job, I told myself, and in their world everyone is a suspect, a sleaze ball who lies to save himself. But then, a few months later, the lid came off the LAPD toilet and I learned about cops manufacturing evidence, "testilying" about crimes that never occurred, shooting an elderly homeless woman who waved a screwdriver at them — whole barrels of bad apples ruining innocent lives in the name of blue power solidarity.
The more I think about those cops, the less sure I am of my feelings toward them. My only certainty is that I will never take another polygraph test.
And that is the truth.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, and short fiction, each offering a glimpse of my life and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.